THE BABY'S NAME was Sun Zhou. She was two months old, a little underweight after a bout of diarrhoea, but otherwise perfectly healthy the day she was admitted to Shanghai's "show-case" orphanage at 105 Puyu West Road.
Within weeks, however, her condition worsened dramatically. She was ashen and listless, little more than skin and bones; on the day she died she was said to be so hungry she was trying to chew the flesh from her own hand. Though it was obvious to the naked eye that she had starved to death, her medical records blamed a "congenital malformation of the brain". It was astonishing how many apparently normal children died from some kind of mental deficiency within weeks or months of arriving at the Shanghai Institute.'
Sun Zhou's agonising death might have gone unmourned but for one extraordinary woman, a 53-year-old mother of two called Dr Zhang Shuyun.
For four years Dr Zhang risked her reputation, her livelihood and even her life as she pleaded with the authorities to act to stop the atrocities she witnessed daily in her job as a physician at the Institute.
The children, she said, were being beaten and tortured, some were being raped and sexually assaulted. Even more sinister, she realised after examining Sun Zhou, they were being deliberately starved to death with the full knowledge of the orphanage director, Han Weicheng.
The death rate tells its own story. In a four-year period in a well-funded, well-staffed orphanage in one of China's richest cities, between 75-81 per cent of the children were dying within a year of admission; at times the overall death rate was closer to nine in 10.
At one point two independent internal investigations supported her allegations. But both were eventually quashed by Han's powerful political friends in Shanghai. Discredited and victimised, Dr Zhang was forced to flee to the West, where her story formed the basis for the recent Human Rights Watch report and the Channel 4 film, Return to The Dying Rooms.
From her secret exile hideaway Dr Zhang told me of the full horror of life at the Shanghai Institute. She uses her hands a lot to express herself, as if this can somehow bridge the gap of understanding as you wait for her every word to be translated from Mandarin to English. It is a painfully slow process, but you sense that she would carry on all night if it means that just one more person can understand the enormity of what she is saying. Which is that, as a refuge for unwanted or handicapped children, the Institute failed abysmally. As a death camp designed to get rid of the abandoned babies whose very existence could raise doubts about the success of China's one-child policy, it operated with an efficiency that would have impressed the Nazis.
Children were earmarked for extermination at regular staff meet ings, usually because they were handicapped or sickly, but some times merely because they were "unattractive" or "troublesome" one child's fate was sealed because she had a runny nose. Once chosen, they would be subjected to a process known as "Summary Resolution".
"Everyone knew what it meant," said Dr Mang " The child would be denied food, water and all medical care until death. Meticulous notes would be made of their decline, of how they were growing weaker and moaning feebly, of how their body fat was disappearing and they were coughing up blood. Doctors would instruct that they be treated "in accor
dance with symptoms", which, everyone understood, meant do nothing." As their pitiful lives ebbed away they would be transferred to the medical ward, known as the "Waiting for Death Room".
Dr Zhang came to hear what was going on from a small group of dissident staff; she came to believe it when she examined Sun Zhou. Seven years on her eyes still well up
as she remembers how she had prescribed a saline solution when the child was admitted and only discovered later that it was never administered because, as one nurse said with a shrug, "the pharmacy was closed".
Even this callousness did not prepare Dr Zhang for what happened to a deaf mute boy called Jian Xun.
He arrived in reasonable health, aged seven, in 1988. After developing a gastric condition he was systematically starved until, at his death aged 11, he weighed under three stone.
In his last weeks he was so skeletal he could not walk. His hands were tied "to prevent him clutching at his throat", but the knots were so tight that his hands turned black. His knees were also chafed and red, says Dr Zhang, because staff beat him with wooden sticks if he struggled. "It was so protracted, so cold-blooded," says Dr Zhang. "No human being should have to endure what they did to Jian Xun."
Other children often met with fatal "accidents": some cleft palate babies died from starvation because they could not hold onto feeding bottles that were stuffed crudely into their mouths; one baby choked while having hot food spooned into her too rapidly.
Evidence of torture came from the children themselves; they told how a retarded boy was tied up and jabbed in the genitals with a metal-pronged pole; a six-year-old girl who had stolen some sweets was beaten sporadically over 24 hours.
Other punishments included the "aeroplane" position and the "motorcycle" position, where children
were forced to bend with their arms held out to the side, or hunch as if sitting astride a bike, for prolonged periods. The punishment they most feared was being held upside down in a bucket of water until they almost drowned. This; the staff jokingly called "Choking on Water".
None of those responsible were ever reprimanded by Han. But then, he himself was an enthusiastic sadist, says Dr Zhang. He once beat a handicapped boy for 90 minutes, after taunting him with brags that he was "trained in Judo". Han had won fame and influence in China by posing as an expert in cerebral palsy. Visitors flocked to the Institute.
The healthier children were dressed in new clothes, given sweets and made to sing and dance for the guests; those who were visibly starving were locked in toilets or hidden in the rafters of disused buildings. But the 'visitors were impressed and left generous donations. Han's Private bank account, meanwhile, once showed a balance of $79,000.
Something of the impunity with which the orphanage staff operated is reflected in a tragedy that happened under the full gaze of one of the investigation teams.
Nine children died after being tied up outside for 24 hours in sub-zero temperatures wearing only a single layer of cotton clothing.
One investigator pleaded that the children be allowed inside because they were turning black and blue. "Oh, it's just a platelet disorder," replied a staff member who was also a senior figure in the local Communist Party.
Dr Zhang and her handful of sympathetic colleagues tried again and again to expose the regime at Shanghai.
When, later, two consecutive investiga t i on s confirmed her findings she felt that, at last, the brutality might ebb. But a third "investigation" was launched, this time concluding that Dr Zhang was a bitter, malicious woman who had carried on a vendetta against Han Weicheng. A media blackout on her claims was then imposed, on the instructions of the then head of the Civil Affairs Bureau in Shanghai, Wu Bangguo. The. dissident staff members were victimised: their salaries were cut, they were intimidated and threatened and one was severely beaten up. Dr Zhang, unable to practice medicine and locked out of her office at the orphanage, began to suffer heart palpitations because of the stress. She was refused medical treatment.
After several months, she felt she had no option but to flee China. All she took with her was her bundle of evidence. Within days she had presented it to Human Rights Watch officials in Hong Kong.
Her allegations were not made public until her husband and two children and a surviving older "orphan", Al Ming (who took the photographs of the corpses in the morgue), were also safely in the West.
The report, (released on 7 January) has unleashed a storm of international outrage, although, inevitably, it has been angrily denied by the brutal old ideologies in Beijing.
They still insist that Dr Zhang has acted for personal gain. It is difficult to see exactly what she has gained. She is struggling to adapt to a new language and culture; her medical qualifications do not qualify her to work as a doctor in the West; she and her family are living in poverty they are living on food which is cheap because it is past its sell-by date and do not dare to switch their central heating on for fear that they cannot afford to pay the bill.
She must also cope with the knowledge that China's notorious State Security Bureau is harassing and interrogating the family and close associates she left behind; charges of subversion recently brought against her brother, Zhang Jian, were dropped only after official intervention by the US and Canada.
And what has become of the men she accused? Han Weicheng is now in charge of all social welfare institutions in Shanghai; the former city mayor, Huang Ju, now has a seat on the Politburo and Wu Bangguo, who quashed the investigations, is widely tipped to succeed Li Peng as premier of all China...
For details of how you can help charities to alleviate this suffering, or about adopting from China, please write, including a telephone contact number, to Karen Crreenhill, do The Catholic Herald.